Image of Darwin from The Book of Knowledge

The Butler Act, outlawing the teaching in Tennessee’s public schools of “any theory that denies the divine creation of man and teaches instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals,” became law on March 21, 1925. But it really wasn’t a matter of national interest until May 1925, when, in short order, John Thomas Scopes agreed to become the defendant in a case testing the law’s constitutionality, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow agreed to join the legal teams representing the prosecution and the defense (respectively), and Scopes was duly indicted. That was enough to kindle interest in the issue of teaching evolution around the country. And my choice of the particular verb “kindle” is deliberate.

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The example of the watch in William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) is famous. A stone found on a heath, Paley explains, seems not to require any explanation, but a watch, with its component parts apparently designed to perform a function, demands to be explained, and explained, moreover, in terms of a designer. And the same is true, he argues at length, of living things. Although Paley is sometimes credited with the example of the watch, it is, I think, generally recognized that he was only the latest in a long string of writers to use horology in the service of natural theology: Cicero, in the first century BCE, similarly appealed to sundials and water-clocks in De natura deorum. So Paley wasn’t original. But was he a plagiarist?

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Title of Allem's thesisIn “Evolution in the Back Seat,” I mentioned Warren Allem’s 1959 University of Tennessee, Knoxville master’s thesis, “Backgrounds of the Scopes Trial at Dayton, Tennessee.” Allem’s thesis is well worth a read, I think, if you’re interested in the Scopes trial, especially because it’s freely available on-line. The main attraction is the interviews he conducted with various residents of Dayton who witnessed the events surrounding the trial. These interviews are frequently cited in the scholarly and popular literature—Edward J. Larson in “The Scopes Trial in History and Legend” (in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers’s edited volume When Science and Christianity Meet, 2008), Michael Lienesch in In the Beginning (2007), and Randy Moore in Evolution in the Courtroom (2002), for example, all cite Allem’s thesis.

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Charles Lyell, via Wikimedia Commons

In “A Pseudo-Darwin Quotation,” I was discussing a spurious quotation that William Bell Riley seemed to have invented and misattributed to Darwin in his pamphlet “Evolution—A False Philosophy,” published sometime in the 1930s. Part of my interest stemmed from the fact that Riley imported the “why are there still monkeys?” challenge into the passage, although it was missing from the actual passage from Darwin that Riley was, more or less, paraphrasing. A persistent, widespread, and tiresomely familiar objection to evolution, the challenge “if humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” presupposes a misconception of evolution as exclusively consisting of change within a lineage, neglecting the possibility of a lineage’s splitting, resulting in two divergent lineages—such as those eventuating in today’s monkeys and today’s humans, not to put too fine a point on it.

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Riley's pseudo-Darwin quotationIn “Evolution—A False Philosophy,” a pamphlet published sometime in the 1930s by William Bell Riley (1861–1947), the Baptist preacher who was as responsible for the flourishing of the antievolution crusade of the 1920s as anyone, there appears a spurious quotation attributed to Darwin. Riley is here concerned to claim that the “whole doctrine of transmutation”—change in species—is “unknown to nature’s ways,” and he naturally wants to invoke Darwin in support.

This fact was admitted by Darwin himself. Here is Darwin’s language from “The Descent of Man,” the 1874 edition:

“It is asking a great deal of intelligent people to believe the theory which is not supported by evidence, just where evidence is most needed. Now these missing links, if there are any, should be more highly developed than the forms lower down in the scale from which they evolved, and therefore more able to continue. Then why not continue, if they ever evolved, while their weaker progenitors, less able to live, continue to this day?”

Now listen to Darwin’s answer to his own question:

“But this objection will not appear of much weight to those who, from general reasons, believe in the general principle of Evolution.” (emphasis in original)

Although the answer is Darwin’s (except for the emphasis on “weight” and the capital E in “Evolution”), the question is not. What Darwin wrote was, “The great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies, which cannot be bridged over by any extinct or living species, has often been advanced as a grave objection to the belief that man is descended from some lower form,” to which he answered, “But this objection,” etc.

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Albert P. MathewsOnce more unto the breach, dear friends, with T. T. Martin’s unforgettably titled Hell and the High Schools (1923). In chapter 2—“What Is Evolution?”—Martin invites the reader to:

Hear a Professor of Chicago University [sic], that slaughter-house of faith, where they do as the old negro preacher said he was going to do, “Bredderin and sisterin, tonight I’se gwine to dispense wid the gospel and confound de scriptures”—is reported from his lecture room to have said, “The Divine creation of life is a pure humbug. Life originally happened. Life is made up of certain organic compounds; certain organic compounds were made by nature. The compounds came together in some manner and the result was life.”

Martin then quotes, accurately, passages from John Tyndall and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) asserting the impossibility of abiogenesis.

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Title from Young's articleIn “Who Was the Occupant?” (part 1, part 2, part 3), I was concerned to investigate a claim that the expression “we may well suppose” occurs over eight hundred times in Darwin’s works On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. That claim, of course, is plainly bogus; the phrase would have to appear about twice every three pages for the claim to be true, which would make it a conspicuous verbal tic on Darwin’s part. Moreover, Darwin himself seems never to have used the expression in print, at least in his own words. (In “Observations on the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy” he quotes Charles Lyell using it.) Nevertheless, the claim is common, probably owing to its occurrence in “Evolutionism in the Pulpit,” written by the pseudonymous “An Occupant of the Pew,” originally published in 1911 and later included in The Fundamentals (1910–1915).

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Thomas H. Dixon Jr., via Wikimedia Commons

As I was researching and writing “Dixon, Not Darwin,” about a viciously racist passage sometimes misattributed to Darwin but actually taken from Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), I was intermittently chatting with my colleague Josh Rosenau about it. Perhaps he lost the thread, because after I mentioned something about Dixon—using only his surname—Rosenau asked, “Are you talking about A. C. Dixon, the coeditor of The Fundamentals?” “No,” I replied, “I’m talking about Thomas F. Dixon Jr., the author of The Clansman.” A moment later, I added, “Golly, I wonder if they’re kin.” A quick visit to Wikipedia later, I added, “Gosh, they were brothers.” (I apologize for the strong language, but I am a man of strong passions when it comes to historical trivia.) So what’s the story?

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Verdt and Wundt

If you spend any time looking through creationist literature, you will become accustomed to lists of scientists who supposedly reject evolution, doubt Darwin, and the like, although the exact complement of the lists changes over time, of course. A famous example is from Luther Tracy Townsend’s Collapse of Evolution (1905), which mentions:

scientists who have devoted their lives to the investigation of nature’s phenomena and who have taken rank in the past and who take rank to-day with those who stand the highest in their departments of study—such men as Agassiz, Beale, Carpenter, Dana, Davy, Dawson, Faraday, Forbes, Gray, Helmholtz, Herschel, Lord Kelvin, Leibnitz, Lotze, Maury, Pasteur, Romanes, Verdt[,] and hundreds of others …

Townsend, as Ronald L. Numbers notes in The Creationists (1992), “assembled one of the earliest—and most frequently cribbed—lists in order to prove that ‘the most thorough scholars, the world’s ablest philosophers and scientists, with few exceptions, are not supporters, but assailants of evolution.’”

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